Azerbaijan’s Elections Reach a New Low

Azerbaijan is heading for its worst elections in recent history, but the government continues to demand that Western partners accept the country as it is—one of Eurasia’s harshest dictatorships.

Azerbaijan is heading for its worst elections in recent history, but the government continues to demand that Western partners accept the country as it is—one of Eurasia’s harshest dictatorships.

On November 1, Azerbaijan is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections. But unlike just 10 years ago, no election debates have been held on television or at universities, no mass demonstrations or roundtable discussions have been organized, and the public shows little to no interest in the campaign. 

There will also be a dearth of international observers on hand to witness the balloting. Last month, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) announced that, due to restrictions imposed by Azerbaijani authorities, it had no choice but to suspend its monitoring mission. 

Another organization, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, agreed in early October to send a limited mission to Azerbaijan, despite multiple concerns expressed by the council’s Venice Commission regarding the legal framework for the voting: In the past 12 years, Azerbaijani authorities have made more than 200 amendments to their electoral code. One of the more recent changes was a sharp curtailment of the campaign period, from four months to 22 days. Officials have also strictly limited the places where candidates can meet with voters, as well as places where citizens can exercise their right to assemble. 

Among other major flaws in the electoral environment, the few independent media have been pressured and harassed by the authorities, while state and progovernment media dedicate little time to election coverage. The state television channel ITV hosted free discussions for political candidates in previous election campaigns, but this year it merely offered candidates paid airtime at the extremely expensive rate of up to $47 per second

Most opposition parties have decided not to participate in these elections. Indeed, they have reported multiple violations designed to deter opposition campaigning, such as kidnapping of their volunteers by authorities, difficulties with candidate registration, and pressure on their potential voters.

A broader crackdown

This heavily rigged parliamentary voting is only the latest manifestation of a more general assault on dissent.

More than 80 individuals from civil society organizations, media outlets, religious groups, and opposition movements are currently incarcerated on trumped-up charges, while other activists have either left the country or curbed their activities to avoid arrest and intimidation. The individuals targeted include anyone who engages independently with the democratic world, for instance by submitting cases to the European Court of Human Rights or participating in international conferences.

The state pressure in recent years has affected a range of political rights and civil liberties. Azerbaijan is currently rated Not Free in Freedom in the World, Not Free in Freedom of the Press, and Partly Free in Freedom on the Net, and receives a democracy score of 6.75 on a scale of 1 to 7—with 7 as the worst possible score—in Nations in Transit

Strategic ally or thuggish dictatorship? 

As with Arab and Central Asian dictatorships, U.S. policymakers have been reluctant to confront Azerbaijan’s government over its human rights abuses for fear of jeopardizing bilateral cooperation on security, energy, and other economic interests. Indeed, the U.S. administration often seems more inclined to praise Baku and trumpet the strategic partnership than to address the regime’s brazen hostility toward democratic norms. Azerbaijan’s leadership has also managed to win a measure of support in Congress.

When the United States does respond to human rights violations in the country, it tends to be through repetitive, boilerplate statements to the effect that Washington is “deeply troubled” by a given event, and that adhering to democratic principles is in “the interests of Azerbaijan.”

Meanwhile, Baku has shown little appreciation for this gentle treatment. President Ilham Aliyev has repeatedly denied the existence of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, and one of his top lieutenants, Ramiz Mehdiyev, has written lengthy articles over the past year in which he accuses the United States of plotting revolutions in Azerbaijan and defiantly declares that the country will not be a “puppet” of the West. 

As the crackdown continues, many human rights defenders in private conversation are also expressing dissatisfaction with official U.S. response.

A fleeting opportunity

American inaction in the face of human rights violations does not guarantee that Azerbaijan will deliver on its promises regarding counterterrorism, energy security, or any other topic. Instead, it could encourage further violations, which only weaken the government’s legitimacy and threaten long-term stability.

By playing a game of false tradeoffs, the United States risks missing an opportunity to stand up for Azerbaijan’s civil society—an effort that would promote a truly strong and reliable partnership in the future. 

While the regime’s aggressive crackdown and rejection of foreign scrutiny may seem like a demonstration of strength, the recent drop in oil prices, a related fiscal crisis, rampant corruption, and recent signs of elite infighting suggest that the government is in its weakest state in years. 

This Sunday’s deeply flawed parliamentary elections will cry out for a strong international response, and now is in fact a good time for the United States to be true to its values, as some officials have recognized. Pressing the case for democracy and human rights will ultimately serve not just the interests of Azerbaijan’s people, but also America’s strategic goals in the country and the region.